Follow in the footsteps of artist Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence, his charming home city


Ca alors, is that really Paul Cezanne? The post-impressionist painter stands next to the Fontaine de la Rotonde, hat and walking stick, easel strapped to his back.

Somehow, the life-size bronze statue of Aix-en-Provence’s favorite son seems puzzled at the attention he’s attracting.

Next month, Cezanne is coming to London’s Tate Modern with a “unique, career-spanning retrospective” of his life and work. I did the reverse journey. In Cezanne’s sun-kissed, carefree birthplace of southern France and the surrounding areas that inspired him, I’ll try to figure out what all the fuss is about.

Charming: Martin Symington explores the image of Aix-en-Provence in southern France, the

Charming: Martin Symington explores the image of Aix-en-Provence in southern France, the “sun-kissed, carefree” birthplace of the artist Paul Cezanne

A bronze statue of the post-impressionist painter in Aix-en-Provence, a place that, according to Martin Cezanne,

Cezanne's work Still Life with Bowl of Fruit.  London's Tate Modern is hosting a retrospective of the artist's work next month

On the left is a bronze statue of the post-impressionist painter in Aix-en-Provence, a place that, according to Martin Cezanne, “lives and breathes”. Shown at right is Cezanne’s Still Life With Fruit Dish. London’s Tate Modern is hosting a retrospective of the artist’s work next month

Cezanne lived and breathed Aix. To get an idea of ​​its beauty and history, think of Bath or Oxford. “When you were born there, nothing is good enough anymore,” as the artist puts it.

A Cezanne-themed trail marked with brass rivets meanders through the city, taking me to sights such as the house on Rue de l’Opera where the artist was born in 1839; the school where he and writer Emile Zola became lifelong friends; and Les Deux Garcons Brasserie, where the couple would shoot the breeze.

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The path meanders into the medieval Mazarin district, which I love with its shady squares and fountains bubbling in cool courtyards.

Narrow streets suddenly lead to the Cours Mirabeau, the aristocratic avenue lined with terraced cafés perfect for enjoying a glass of chilled Provençal rosé.

The walk ends at Atelier de Cezanne, his airy studio on Lauves Hill, which has remained pretty much as it was; Canvases and oils, baskets of ripe red apples, hints of linseed and a paint-splattered ladder. I feel the aura of the artist. Maybe he just jumped out to smoke a pipe?

The next morning I make my way to the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint, now a public park, just outside of Aix, where Cezanne sat overlooking the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

Above is the Atelier de Cezanne, the artist's airy studio which 'has been left pretty much as it was;  Canvases and oils, baskets of ripe red apples, hints of linseed and a paint-splattered ladder.

Above is the Atelier de Cezanne, the artist’s airy studio which ‘has been left pretty much as it was; Canvases and oils, baskets of ripe red apples, hints of linseed and a paint-splattered ladder.

This is the majestic mountain he compulsively painted – more than 80 oils and watercolors. The subject matter may be the same, but the paintings include a palette of angles, lights and shades, shades of grey-blue, ocher and green.

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Several are featured in the Tate exhibition, which was curated to chronicle his move towards more abstract works.

As I cruise along the Arc river, I see for myself how Sainte-Victoire exerts its presence over Aix and the surrounding area. I follow the winding road (now inevitably known as Route Cezanne) that he would have ridden his horse and cart a thousand times to capture a different mood of the mountain.

Pictured is Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the majestic mountain that Cezanne obsessively painted - more than 80 oils and watercolors

Pictured is Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the majestic mountain that Cezanne obsessively painted – more than 80 oils and watercolors

Martin visits the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint (pictured), now a public park, just outside Aix, where Cezanne sat to enjoy the view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire

Martin visits the Terrain des Peintres viewpoint (pictured), now a public park, just outside Aix, where Cezanne sat to enjoy the view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire

TRAVEL FACTS

Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) is offering three nights bed and breakfast at Hotel Le Pigonnet from £669 pp, including flights and transfers. Guided tours by secretsdici.fr. The EY Exhibition: Cezanne runs from 5 October to 12 March 2023 at Tate Modern in London (tickets £22, tate.org.uk).

It’s time to uncover the mysteries of Carrieres de Bibemus, a jumble of sandstone quarries 5km east of Aix and another of Cezanne’s obsessions.

Access is limited to guided groups, so I delve into this orange-hued rocky landscape, laced with dark undergrowth and scented with pine sap, with local expert Arthur Carlier. We stop at viewing platforms that display reproductions of works in the places where Cezanne painted them.

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“Between 1895 and 1899 Cezanne lived more or less among these cut rocks and experimented with new techniques,” says Arthur. Later, Picasso was fascinated by the groundbreaking methods he developed here. Picasso called him “the father of us all”.

Back in Aix, I see the city’s magnificent golden edifices in a new light after learning that they were built over the centuries from stones quarried in Bibemus.

What I don’t find in his hometown is much of Cezanne’s original work. Sure, a handful hangs in the Musee Granet deep in the Mazarin district, but no one claims these are masterpieces.

This is because Cezanne died barely recognised. The high society of Aix had taken action against him; The museum’s curator swore that no work by the local lunatic would hang on his clock there. This is perhaps why the man who lived and breathed Aix was sculpted to look confused as he stands next to Fontaine de la Rotonde.

Now that he has taken his place among the greats, it is Aix-en-Provence that Cezanne lives and breathes.



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